An Interview with Leila Josefowicz

By · Photography © Chris Lee · Date 11/3/2016

Maintaining an active career performing with major orchestras around the world, Canadian-American violinist Leila Josefowicz has managed to walk the line between the expected standard repertoires for violin and orchestra and more daring new works. As a testament to this, over the past year, Leila has performed Sergei Prokofiev’s “Violin Concerto No. 1” (1917), Alban Berg’s “Violin Concerto” (1935), and is currently preparing John Adams’s “Scheherazade No. 2” (2015), a work written specifically for her, for an upcoming performance with Zurich’s Tonhalle-Orchester.

Growing up being lauded a “child prodigy” in the 1980s, and beginning her career before reaching her teens, Leila has also experienced firsthand a darker side of the classical music world—something she has had to confront later in life, and consider as a mother.I spoke to Leila over the phone from her house in Scarsdale, New York about the practicalities of commissioning a work for violin and orchestra, what makes new violin music compelling, and the struggles of growing up a child prodigy in a music culture that values youthful displays of skill over the ethical treatment of children.

VAN: You were awarded a MacArthur Fellowship back in 2008 partly for your advocacy of contemporary composers and their work. What does it mean for you to be an advocate for new music and why have you made it an important part of your practice as a performer?

Leila Josefowicz: I had very rigorous training from an extremely young age. My entire childhood was about playing violin and learning the technique of how to play the violin, how to practice, how to listen, and gradually building repertoire, from studies and etudes to different concerti: the standard violin repertoire. I did well in that and progressed quickly, but I was not in the position to make choices about what I played, or when, or for what reasons [laughs]. In the end that led me to very much want to decide what I played and for what reason. I went to the Curtis Institute and continued my studies there, learning and practicing [and performing] these standards works that we all know and love, that many of my colleagues play all season long. And I was in the middle of that probably in my late teens and it was a specific point I remember very well: I was in a hotel room, looking at the wall and thinking, “OK, I see what I’m doing now. Is this what I’m going to be doing, literally for the rest of my entire career, playing Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Brahms, and Sibelius? Like, am I done?” [Laughs]

If I had had the feeling at that point that I was happy, the story would have been very different. What I felt at that moment was, “I’m not bored because this music is great music, but I can’t see my path continuing in this way. It’s not innovative enough. It’s not somehow exciting enough.” And probably the child prodigy voice inside of me said, “Damnit, it’s not rebellious enough!” All of these different things came into play making me want to go in the more spontaneous route, the more unexpected route, urging audiences to listen in different ways.

In my training I practiced comparative listening, which is sort of an art form in itself—appreciating what people do with different interpretations and why they’re doing them and what is interesting, what is different between the interpretations. [But] as a player in a position of having to play things very young, I found that—and I still find it—a bit claustrophobic. I like the feeling of an adventure. This is a new work—you know, with the score put in front of you. Or to go to a world premiere and have no preconceived ideas about what you think you’re going to hear, without anticipating a certain favorite moment. This is a new way of listening: being open to different sounds, to different kinds of feelings that may flash across you, that are totally new, without any kind of planning or anticipating or warning of what’s to come. This is very important, I think, for listeners to be open to, and as a performer, I was more than happy to be the instigator of new works so that people can experience this.

It seems that among the composers you regularly perform—John Adams, Thomas Adès, Oliver Knussen, Steven Mackey, Colin Matthews—there are certain threads that bring all of them together. I don’t know if it’s a stylistic similarity in the music they write or if it’s a more or less conventional approach to instrumental writing. Or maybe, it’s that they’re all basically America or Britain-based. Do you think that there’s something that ties all these composers together?

I mean, Francesconi is obviously not British or American…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sWmzH6W00K0

Luca Francesconi, “Duende – The Dark Notes”; Leila Josefowicz (Violin), Susanna Mälkki (Conductor), BBC Symphony Orchestra

Yes, you’re right, Francesconi—he was the outlier!

Some of these commissions have come from the composers themselves—most of them have. A good part of them are composer-conductors, which is a very important part of my career, in a sense. One of the main goals I have is to help a new work be created and born, but the chances of that piece being performed often are so much greater if the composer is also the conductor.

Right, hence Salonen, Adès, Adams, Knussen…

Exactly. I’ve based my kind of core repertoire on these pieces. Of course not everyone does and then inevitably it’s just more of a challenge. And in a way, I’ve focused on composer-conductors for that reason. But then if I’m focusing on a composer who doesn’t conduct, the question is: Which conductors do I know who love this composer? This is a question I need to ask myself every time I plan a commission. It’s an essential part of the process. What can I do if I’m having trouble programming the piece? This is something I’m constantly thinking about. It’s a practicality that one doesn’t think about instantly. But in my position I sort of have to think about it. I need the support of a conductor to want to do a certain piece with me. David Robertson is just an amazing conductor and buddy of mine and we really trust each other with commissions and different pieces of repertoire, so he’s a real advocate. In other words I can’t do this alone. I need people who love new music and have the same feelings about it all as I do.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFfcFrNRDaM

John Adams, Violin Concerto; Leila Josefowicz (Violin), John Adams (Conductor), Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra

Are there pieces that you’d like to perform by non-composer-conductors that you can’t?

Well, even on my list of commissioned works, some just get a whole lot less performances for this reason. What I’d say to composers out there is, “Learn how to conduct!” It’s really an essential part of the process here. Otherwise, you’re completely reliant on other people.

Do you feel closer to music that uses the violin in a traditionally violinistic way or are you also or equally interested in music that treats the violin in an un-violinistic way?

Well, I mean, having many years of playing “violinistically virtuosic music” as a very young performer, I am very sensitive to this. You know, Paganini… do I need to say more? I’m very sensitized to this sort of language. I’m sensitized to the desired effect that the composer wants. I’m very sensitive to what it feels like to do these things as a player and also to what the composer wants—that sort of wow factor. And there are certain kinds of traditional techniques that have been used over and over, and I’m allergic to them basically. So, as soon as I feel like someone is going down that road I have an instant allergic reaction to it. The conventional aspects of violin playing, I suppose, can be used, if they’re done in a piece of new music, but only if they’re done in a brilliant, unexpected way. But in general I’m a bit burnt out on the cliché sound—the things I’m attracted to are more music for music’s sake, rather than for impressing’s sake.

My main principle will always be quality over quantity. You are never going to see me play a program with 20 composers on it. You might see me feature one or two programs in a recital program—maybe with a few works from composers that you know. But you will never see me do the fad—20 composers in a row—kind of circus act. That’s not my kind of thing. I spend so much time on each commission and each one matters so much to me. To have that language really be part of my body so that I can make it my own. 

So you’re trying to give new music the space it needs.

This also comes from my earlier years. I know, as we all do, what it means to study a great work. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, for example. I know how much time we spend studying that, and how much time we must spend thinking about what we’re doing with it. All I did basically was switch out the piece and keep the effort the same. Instead of being Beethoven, it’s Luca Francesconi’s “The Dark Notes.”

Henryk Wieniawski, “Scherzo Tarantella”; Leila Josefowicz (Violin), at age nine.

There are some videos floating around on YouTube of you performing some of the most difficult pieces in the violin repertoire with major orchestras back in the 1980s. You were in your early teens at the time—in the earliest video, only nine years old. Having grown up being proclaimed a “child prodigy,” do you now find this obsession with child prodigies in the classical music world problematic?

Problematic in what way? You mean, like morally?

In that, for one, you were still only a kid…

Yeah! Absolutely. There are huge, huge problems with it. This is like a whole… now we’re entering into a whole different topic, which is very complex and it’s also just an overwhelming issue. 

Since the age of Mozart, it seems there’s been this unhealthy focus on child prodigies in classical music.

I’m not sure it’s as much now as it was in the 1980s. Do you know of an amazing child prodigy in the classical music world right now? [Read Hartmut Welscher’s piece on Alma Deutscher and prodigies in VAN—Ed. note.] I can’t actually think of one in the same way we had Midori, we had me, maybe Hilary Hahn…I mean, I feel like we went through a huge fad— Matt Haimovitz is another one—we went through a phase with this and I don’t know if it’s lessened now. I just don’t know.

But of course, I love music. It kept me going, just my love of music. But if I didn’t love music, I can promise you that I would not have continued because I wouldn’t have been able to continue. I wouldn’t be where I am now if I didn’t love music. There would be no point to me having first been pushed very hard and then under the performance pressures that one is under doing this sort of thing, it’s just not something that can be sustained if you’re not waking up still loving music. I have a lot of issues with the whole subject and some of them, I think, I’ve now managed to kind of wrap my head around. The bottom line is, when you’re a child prodigy, your childhood is in some ways morphed and in some cases, it’s just gone. And that comes back to haunt you later, when you pass a certain age and realize that your childhood is gone and you’ll never have it back and that’s the reality of it—it can be extremely damaging for people to handle that sort of pressure if they’re not prepared for it mentally.

Yes, but how could you be prepared as a nine year old?

Well, I wasn’t. I was just doing what I was taught to do. And there was a part of me that knew I was very good at it. And that was pretty much where it stood. But that’s another big reason why I went the way I went in music because I had to make it my own, otherwise I would just, in some ways, feel still programmed, which is really—it’s not a healthy feeling. So yeah, I mean it worked for me and that’s what every person that grows up in this way has to do, otherwise it’s just not gratifying in the end.

How else would you say having that enormous pressure as a kid has altered the way you interact with the world?

Are you planning to write a book?! [Laughs] I mean, these are bold questions and I appreciate them. I’m a tough cookie in a lot of ways. I’m very vigilant. I learned that at a very young age.

Would you say, you’ve become callused?

No, not callused. But I learned that giving up is not the answer. If you love something, persist. If you don’t like it, then it is probably best if you turn your attention elsewhere. And then there are certain things that you just can’t give up on—you need to stand by them. 

I learned what work is. I learned that if you work, it pays off. If you practice, it actually makes a difference. And if you have goals, and you work towards them, eventually, there’s a very good chance you will get there. If you don’t work towards them, you will not get there. You know I have three boys, ages 16, four, and two, and this is something—you know it’s kind of a theme—a recurring theme.

And would you ever encourage them to pursue music? Is there a different approach you take from that which you experienced as a kid? Are you very sensitive to them when they say, “Mom, I don’t really want to play piano anymore.”

My youngest son started in on music but it was just clearly not something that he loves enough or wanted to do badly enough to continue. There was something in me that really did grab onto this. And I think it’s important for parents to—this could be another book—how do parents deal with great talent? How do they deal with this whole thing and yet be sensitive to the person involved? These are incredibly complex issues. And each one is very unique. You don’t ever have two of the same story out there. So I don’t have immediate answers for some of these huge questions except that I respect that that’s what they are—huge questions—and everyone has to kind of find their own way. But giving up is not going to help you find your way. That is one of the biggest things I have learned from my youth and onward. ¶